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WHAT A'BOUT ROB?: Looking Ahead to Football's '05 Season

By Robert C. Boutwell, Crimson Staff Writer

Thanksgiving doesn’t seem right without football. Like many of you, I spent a lot of my time last Thursday in front of the TV with my family watching the Colts demolish the Lions and the Bears and the Cowboys play an ugly, uneventful game.

But I feel like this year, for the first time, I’m just not that into the NFL. Maybe it’s because I couldn’t really get psyched up about football until the Sox finished their historic championship run, or maybe it was because I had so much to do with getting back into the swing of junior year.

But I think it was more because college football has been so interesting this year. The Harvard season has now been over for a week and a half, yet I’m still hungry for more football at Harvard stadium. So while former Bruin Teddy Donato leads the men’s hockey team to one of their most successful starts in years and Brian Cusworth returns to help Frank Sullivan’s basketball team attempt to improve on its 4-23 record of a year ago, I will once again use this space to discuss football.

The aftershocks of disappointing seasons in major college football programs are already being felt around the nation, and the season isn’t even over. Just yesterday, Notre Dame fired Tyrone Willingham after only three seasons, and Lou Holtz and Ron Zook have already resigned from their jobs at South Carolina and Florida, respectively.

After a 10-0 season in Cambridge, there’s not much speculation about Tim Murphy getting fired, and nobody is really talking about next season. But let’s look at what we can expect from the Crimson when the air begins to get crisp again next September.

As crazy as it seems, the football team may be better next year. The Ivy League champion Crimson is coming off what could plausibly be described as the best four-year run in Harvard history.

During captain Ryan Fitzpatrick’s four-year run at quarterback (splitting time with Neil Rose ’02-’03 during his first two seasons), Tim Murphy’s team only lost six games. With the graduation of first-team All-Ivy performers Fitzpatrick, wide receiver Brian Edwards, linebackers Bobby Everett and Sean Tracy and offensive tackle Brian Lapham, many observers would assume that Murphy may have trouble filling in at some key positions next season.

Yet as great as the offense anchored by Fitzpatrick, Edwards, and sophomore running back Clifton Dawson was, the true reason that this Crimson team was able to win an Ivy League championship was the depth and strength of Murphy’s defense.

Throughout the year in my weekly radio interview with Murphy, he told me that people were underestimating his defense—when healthy, he steadfastly claimed that they would dominate opponents once they came together.

And they sure did. It’s often been said that the mark of a great football team is the ability to improve week to week, and it was clear that Murphy’s defense did that, as they finished the season by holding Penn and Yale to only 10 and three points, respectively. And though the losses of Everett, Tracy, and the other defensive stalwarts for this year’s club will certainly affect Harvard football, expect to see a number of young players continue their rapid rises to stardom next season.

First among those players to expect to continue his dominance is junior linebacker Matt Thomas. Thomas missed his entire sophomore season with an injury, but he stepped in at the middle linebacker position that Dante Balestracci ’04 vacated and performed admirably, leading Harvard with 82 tackles and 8 sacks. Hopefully, as the winter turns to the spring, one player—be it one of the two juniors, Robert Balkema or Gary Garcia, or sophomores Adam Miller or Dylan McCrory—will distinguish himself as the heir apparent to Everett. Though Thomas led the team in tackles and sacks, Everett was clearly the field general on defense and his presence will be sorely missed.

Yet the real reason I believe the Crimson defense will be so good next year is the defensive line and the defensive secondary. On the line, the depth is simply terrific. Junior Erik Grimm has long been considered one of the best players on the Harvard defensive line, and if he can avoid the injuries that plagued him this season he has a chance to have a special senior season when he will lead the Crimson as the new captain of Harvard football.

Sophomore Michael Berg and freshman Desmond Bryant both played amazingly well this year on the defensive line. Murphy showed a willingness to use young players that is seldom seen in the Ivy League, and the two defensive ends responded, showing an amazing ability to get penetration into opposing offensive lines despite their inexperience.

Berg was named second-team All-Ivy after racking up 15 tackles for a loss and being a great run-stuffer as a nose tackle. Bryant is more of an edge rusher in the Willie McGinest mold, and he was able to find opposing quarterbacks on four occasions for sacks. Bryant is still relatively thin though, and if he puts on some weight over the winter he could be a dominating force.

Though losing seniors Matt McBurney and Coesen Ngwun will clearly hurt the tackles, Berg’s imposing presence inside should more than compensate.

The secondary will be impressive again too. Though second-team All Ivy performer Gary Sonkur graduates, both junior Keith Howell and sophomore Danny Tanner will return to man the corner position next year after playing good man coverage late in the season. The star of the defensive backfield in my opinion, though, will clearly be Doug Hewlett. The freshman moved into the starting spot at strong safety as the year went on, and he proved himself more than capable, routinely batting down balls over the middle and aiding Williamson and Tracy in controlling the middle of the field.

Next year, the skill positions on offense will be somewhat up in the air with a new quarterback lining up under center and a new wide receiver to go along with Corey Mazza. Yet if Dawson and the offensive line can help to get the younger players acclimated, perhaps the reverse of this year will be true: a staunch experienced defense will help to guide in a new era of Crimson football under a young offense.

—Staff writer Robert C. Boutwell can be reached at boutwel@fas.harvard.edu. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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